The community depicted in The Mill on the Floss is a small one, and old grudges die hard. Many of the families living in the town of St. Ogg’s have done so for generations, and people feel a strong sense of loyalty to their community and traditions. Often, this cleaving to tradition can take the form of intolerance towards those who deviate from social norms or who are thought to have shamed or betrayed their relatives. The clever, independent Maggie Tulliver encounters various forms of intolerance and prejudice throughout the novel, but also experiences compassion and forgiveness from those she has wronged—like Philip Wakem and Lucy Deane. Maggie longs for a more forgiving and generous world. She tries to make that world a reality in her final attempt to rescue her brother, Tom, from a flood that devastates the town, sacrificing her own life in the process. Throughout the novel, Tom and Maggie hold very different attitudes regarding forgiveness. Tom is highly principled, stubborn, and tends to believe that he is always right. Maggie, on the other hand, acknowledges her own flaws in such a way that makes her more compassionate in response to the failings of others. Their reconciliation before their deaths in the flood is thus a triumph of Maggie’s compassion over Tom’s often unforgiving adherence to principles.
Both sides of Maggie’s family—the Dodsons and the Tullivers—are markedly intolerant and show a constitutional unwillingness to admit when they are wrong and forgive those who they think have wronged them. Mrs. Glegg, for example, is highly critical of not only her Tulliver relations but nearly everyone in the town, remarking that standards of etiquette, dress, and household management have fallen since her own youth. Her bad-temperedness comes from a strong conviction that her own values are the standard by which everyone else should live. In his own way, Mr. Tulliver is just as stubborn and unforgiving as the Dodsons. He constantly feuds with his neighbors and “goes to law” with them, initiating lawsuits over land management matters that eventually ruin him financially. He fixates on the lawyer Wakem as the cause of his misfortunes and makes Tom swear on the family Bible to hate the Wakems too, making forgiveness difficult and even impossible for the next generation. However, even Tom and Maggie’s notoriously unforgiving family members can show a more compassionate and tolerant side. It is Mrs. Glegg, of all people, who stands by Maggie when she has been rejected by nearly everyone else in St. Ogg’s. Although the town condemns Maggie for her elopement with Stephen Guest, Mrs. Glegg declares that she believes in her innocence—showing that compassion and forgiveness can appear even when least expected.
The examples of Philip Wakem and Lucy Deane also demonstrate the recuperative power of forgiveness. Philip was in love with Maggie, and Lucy was engaged in all but name to Stephen Guest, so Maggie and Stephen’s elopement was a cause of great distress to both of them. However, Philip writes a long letter to Maggie in which he explains that he forgives her. In fact, he offers his own apology for pressing his romantic feelings on her when she may have not reciprocated them. Philip’s willingness to accept Maggie’s flaws and his own part in the tragedy that befell her shows an ability to emphasize with others that has been lacking thus far in Maggie’s relatives. Lucy also forgives Maggie, visiting her in her lodging in St. Ogg’s after the botched elopement to tell her that she understands Maggie never meant to hurt her. This compassion is a great comfort to Maggie, who is a social outcast in the town, and makes her feel that she made the right decision in giving up Stephen. For Maggie, the compassion of even one person can soften the pain of rejection and intolerance from hundreds of other people, suggesting that forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts possible in human relationships.
The person by whom Maggie most hopes to be forgiven is Tom—but Tom is a stubborn character, much like their father, who tends to take a self-righteous attitude and hold tenaciously to his convictions. Even when they were children, Tom would often punish Maggie for small faults—like knocking something over or pushing Lucy—by reproaching her harshly. This coldness deeply distressed Maggie, who adored her brother and longed for his affection. When Maggie returns from her failed elopement with Stephen, she goes straight to Tom and asks him to forgive her. He tells her that he is “disgusted” by her behavior and will have nothing more to do to her, a response that plunges Maggie into despair.
Although Tom has spent much of his life criticizing Maggie and refusing to forgive her faults, their reunion in death is a final triumph of compassion and forgiveness over intolerance. Tom renounced Maggie as his sister, but she remained loyal to him as her brother, sacrificing her own life to try to rescue him from Dorlcote Mill. Tom is astonished at Maggie’s appearance, clinging to her and calling her “Magsie,” her childhood nickname. According to the epitaph on their shared grave—“In their deaths, they were not divided”—the grudges, intolerance, and personal stubbornness that had kept Maggie and Tom apart while alive can no longer “divide” them in death. The novel’s ending thus suggests that the difficulties in Maggie’s relationship with her brother fall away in their final moments, when brother and sister are able to forgive one another. Faced with death, Tom and Maggie realize that the bonds of family and shared history are ultimately the most lasting attachments of their lives. Whatever their differences, it is this ability to care for and have compassion for one another that trumps everything else. In this sense, awareness of the fleeting nature of life compels and rewards forgiveness.
Tolerance and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Tolerance and Forgiveness Quotes in The Mill on the Floss
I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we are to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie—how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the outward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibers of their hearts.
“But it isn’t for that, that I’m jealous for the dark women—not because I’m dark myself. It’s because I always care the most about the unhappy people: if the blond girl were forsaken, I should like her best. I always take the side of the rejected lover in the stories.”
“But you have always enjoyed punishing me—you have always been hard and cruel to me: even when I was a little girl, and always loved you better than any one else in the world, you would let me go crying to bed without forgiving me. You have no pity: you have no sense of your own imperfection and your own sins.”
If Miss Tulliver, after a few months of well-chosen travel, had returned as Mrs. Stephen Guest, with a post-marital trousseau, and all the advantages possessed even by the most unwelcome wife of an only son, public opinion, which at St. Ogg's, as elsewhere, always knew what to think, would have judged in strict consistency with those results.